Unfair Trade?

Ethical Branding has captured the public imagination, but may be rapidly becoming a cynical marketing ploy, believes Ultan Connolly.

In recent years, modern consumers have become increasingly aware of the ethics underlying the products they are buying. At face value, this is a welcome development, and big name brands such as Nestlé and Cadburys have rushed to cash in on the emerging trend. However, as a result, so-called ‘ethical branding’ is in danger of becoming nothing more than a contemporary marketing tool.

The Fairtrade movement was the first such phenomenon to take hold of consumers’ attention en masse. It was formed with a mission to help small scale producers obtain a reasonable price on the global market for their produce. To date, it has organisations in 60 countries, and has achieved success in increasing awareness of global trade issues, as well as ensuring a better deal for small producers.

One of its most notable successes has been in the coffee sector, guaranteeing a minimum price for all produce. Opponents to the model cite the organisation’s lack of ability or willingness to deal with larger farmers and producers. Yet their success has got the big corporations’ attention. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is now made with entirely Fairtrade products, while Nestlé’s Kit Kat has borne the Fairtarde logo since January of this year.

Nestlé seem suspiciously eager to promote Kit Kat as an ethical product, while conveniently ignoring the status of their other goods. Is the Kit Kat brand truly ethical if profits from its sale go to a corporation with a background in gross violations of ethical standards? Moreover, how ethical are Nestlé in using cocoa from the Ivory Coast, a country which, according to a 2002 report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, houses up to 284,000 children in hazardous conditions?

In more recent times, a silent battle has been going on between the top brands in ethical products. Now we can either have a Fairtrade certified coffee or a Rainforest Alliance certified coffee. Are they ostensibly the same thing? Despite what your local coffee vendor might tell you, they certainly are not. Firstly, the Rainforest Alliance do not guarantee a minimum price to producers, claiming that the Fairtrade model is encouraging new producers to enter an already saturated market.

Given that the price paid by Fairtrade does not exactly afford producers a life of luxury, this seems unlikely. Secondly, for coffee to bear Rainforest Alliance certification, the product only need contain 30% certified beans. The other 70% can be as unethically-sourced as Nestlé’s baby milk ingredients. Because of this, franchises like Starbucks and McDonalds are choosing Rainforest Alliance certification over Fairtrade, and hence maximising profits rather than ethical standards.

On the whole, consumers need to be constantly sceptical and questioning of how ‘ethical’ such branded products actually are. The likelihood of further initiatives springing up and being used by corporations to create an air of equity and humanity, whilst in reality doing little to further a human rights agenda, is high. We must collectively raise awareness to prevent it from becoming nothing more than a marketing tool used to appease consumer consciences.

Originally appeared in the November 2010 edition of Motley

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